Signs of a New Monasticism

By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

The 20th century Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that the life of “every Christian is signed with the sign of Jonah, because we all live by the power of Christ’s resurrection.” The sign that marks the life of the church in the world is God’s victory over death through death—the ultimate winning by losing. Any church that remembers its identity in the transition from Good Friday to Easter morning has reason to hope, even in the darkest night. The church we know is fraught with contradictions. But God is able to restore life-giving warmth to limbs that were frozen in death. Even if the church is the dead and broken body of Christ, God can resurrect it.

It is hard for the church to remember God’s resurrection power. In the New Testament, Paul wrote to the Ephesians, praying that they would know “what is [God’s] immeasurably great power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power which he put into effect when he raised Jesus from the dead.” Evidently, those early converts to Christianity at Ephesus had a hard time remembering God’s power over death—so, too, with American Christianity today. But throughout the history of the church, God has called people to pray as Paul did for grace to remember what Christ’s resurrection means for the church. Thomas Merton, who was heir to a long monastic tradition of prophetic witness, articulated his sense of vocation this way: “I feel that my own life is especially sealed with this great sign…because like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

In the belly of the paradox that is American Christianity, God is moving to create new monastic communities to help the church in America remember resurrection. Though the signs of the time suggest that it is hard to be a Christian in America, there are also signs that God is doing something new in places that have been overlooked and abandoned by our society. Stumbling to follow Jesus myself, I found my way into some of these communities and learned to read the Bible anew with them. The story of the people of God came alive in that context, and I began to see how God has moved through the centuries to remind the church of her true identity through monastic movements. Monasticism, I learned, is not about achieving some sort of individual or communal piety. It is about helping the church be the church.

Monasticism goes back almost to the beginning of church history. In his book The Monastic Impulse, theologian Walter Capps summarizes the legacy of monastic history in a pretty strong statement. “Monasticism,” he says, is the West’s “most powerful and enduring instance of counter-culture.” When I think “counter-cultural,” I usually think “punk rocker with a nose ring,” not “nun in a cloister.” I have seen enough teenagers with long hair grow up to understand that what we usually call “counter-culture” is not very enduring. But I think this is a pretty incredible claim that Capps makes: not only does monasticism last longer; it is more powerful than any other form of resistance to mainstream society we have seen in the West. If that is true, then the real radicals are not quoting Che Guevara or listening to Rage Against the Machine on their ipods. The true revolutionaries are learning to pray. If Capps is right, they always have been.

In every era, God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation. These people have not been perfect. Like the apostle Paul, they often considered themselves “chief among sinners.” But, one way or another, they found hope in the story of the people of God and strove to get back to the roots of that story. For this, they were often called radicals (radix is Latin for “root”). Sometimes they were even killed. But they knew the life they found in Christ was worth more than anything else this world could offer.

These saints who have called us back to our roots generation after generation remind us that the roots of God’s kingdom are rhizomes. They spread horizontally beneath the surface, effecting change from below. It is a quiet revolution—one that is often ignored by newspapers and usually missed by historians. But it is, in the end, how God plans to save the world. Like those rhizomes, God’s kingdom will not go away. It is, as the book of Daniel says, “a mountain that grows to fill the whole earth.”



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